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2006.5 Kia Optima LX Test Drive

What's not to like?

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2006.5 Kia Optima LX front view

2006.5 Kia Optima LX

© Aaron Gold
The 2006.5 Optima (timing prevented them from calling it a 2007) is a clean-sheet redesign of Kia's mid-size sedan. While the old car was a cheap alternative to mainstream cars, the new Optima is cheap in price only. Lack of safety kit on low-end models is the only glaring fault. The Optima is available in LX and EX trim with 4- or 6-cylinder power. I tested the bottom-of-the-line 4-cylinder LX -- and loved it. $16,955 base, $17,040 as tested, EPA mileage 24/34 MPG city/highway.

First Glance: It's not ugly, and that's saying something...

Styling has never been a Kia strong point, but the new Optima is pleasant looking in a bland, unassuming sort of way. Whether Acura will file suit against Kia for stealing the '94-'02 Integra taillight design (link goe to photo) remains to be seen.

Appearance-wise, there's not much to separate the entry-level Optima LX from the top-of-the-line EX. Both have a chrome grille as standard with a blacked-out grille optional; the EX gets chrome door handles (though I prefer the body-color door handles on the LX) and tinted side windows. EX and LX-V6 models get 16" alloy wheels, but the 16" steel wheels with plastic covers on the 4-cylinder LX looked just fine to me.

The main selling point of the Optima (and most Korean cars) is not styling, but value, and the LX delivers: Power windows, mirrors and locks, CD player, air conditioning, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are all standard. With a set of $85 floor mats, the sticker on my tester was a palatable $17,040. That's $1,996 less than an entry-level Toyota Camry CE (with floor mats). That said, the Camry includes antilock brakes and will hold its value much better. That said, good luck finding a bare-bones Camry CE at a dealer.

Continued below…

In the Driver's Seat: Turning Japanese? I really think so!

2006 Kia Optima LX interior

Bet you could fool a Camry owner into thinking this is a Toyota...

© Aaron Gold
The highlight of the Optima is its interior, which is built to Japanese levels of quality, functionality and décor. Take the dash: It's made of good quality plastics in various colors and finishes. Kia clearly understands the concept of tactile feedback: The buttons, dials and switches exude a feeling of quality in the way they move. All week I kept wondering: If I covered the badges and sat a Toyota owner down behind the wheel, could I fool him or her into thinking this is the new Camry? I never did get around to trying it, but I bet it would have worked. And despite jokes I've made in the past about there being no Big Gulps in Korea, the Optima wins the Most Improved Cupholders award for 2006. The two pond-sized openings in the center console not only accommodate a pair of Mega Bladder Busters, but they are deep enough to hold them securely while cornering.

The Kia's seat cloth looked a bit thin to me, but the height-adjustable front seats were comfortable enough. Leather is optional, but only on the EX. One thing I didn't like was the black-and-chrome stick-shift, which looked like it belonged in a 1988 Chevy Beretta. Automatic Optimas get a much nicer looking shift lever.

On the Road: I want my ABS

The Optima's 2.4 liter 161 horsepower engine is similar in size and output to the four-bangers in the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Like the Camry, the Optima comes with a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission. My car had the former, and it's pretty crummy as far as stick-shifts go. The shifter feel is oddly artificial and the clutch offers no feedback. I blame that, and the engine's lack of low-end torque, for the fact that I stalled the Optima at least a half-dozen times. (Others would chalk it up to bad driving, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Shifting aside, the Optima is easy to drive and a wonderful car for nipping about town. Its dimensions are passenger-friendly inside and urban-friendly outside. The ride is pleasantly firm, though a bit floaty at highway speeds.

With standard airbags all around, passive safety is an Optima strong point. Active safety, however, isn't: Antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control are optional on the EX and LX-V6, but not available on the 4-cyl LX. Why should buyers of the low-end Optima miss out on these important safety features? That's just not right.

Journey's End: Hot on Toyota and Honda's heels

2006 Kia Optima rear view

Acura-esque taillights give it a pleasant look

© Aaron Gold
I had a feeling I’d like the Optima -- cheap, well-equipped cars always make my heart go pitter-pat -- but I didn't imagine I'd enjoy it so much. Despite my dislike for the manual transmission (which, apparently, didn't like me much either), the Optima was surprisingly enjoyable to drive. Much of the same can be said for the 2006 Hyundai Sonata, which is mechanically similar to the Optima.

The Kia Optima's cheap price doesn’t tell the whole story, though: Resale values are much lower than Japanese cars, and there's still a cloud hanging over the Kia's reliability record. That said, a 5 year/60,000 mile warranty and free roadside assistance should be some consolation. If you're in it for the long haul, a 10 year/100,000 mile warranty on the powertrain should give you some peace of mind; just be sure to do all the maintenance as recommended in the owner's manual and save your receipts.

Long term is an unknown, but my first impression of the Optima is that it's a winner. The important thing here is that Kia gets it. They seem to understand what Americans want in a car every bit as well as Toyota and Honda do -- and they've given it to us in the new Optima.

2006.5 Kia Optima photo gallery

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